How the College Student Vote Will Impact a Minnesota Swing District

by Clare Collins

If we don’t win this race, we won’t get a majority in the House. This was the message Democratic second district candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives Angie Craig sent at her Sept. 28 campaign event in Northfield, Minnesota. Indeed, Democrats need to flip 24 seats in order to gain a majority in the House. However, looking at races that could be close to flipping, Cook Political Report shows only 15, while FiveThirtyEight shows 22, a very close margin to the 24 needed. This means Democrats face an upward battle flipping the house blue. However, this change may still be feasible for Democrats. Sources like FiveThirtyEight put odds at 5 in 6 that Democrats will win control of the house, despite the large number of seats needed to win. Regardless, races like the one between Angie Craig and Jason Lewis will make the difference between a Democratic and a Republican majority in the House.

Northfield, the city where Craig hosted her campaign event, is a liberal base in the second district. A small town with a population of about 20,000, Northfield is the home of two liberal arts colleges: Carleton College and St. Olaf College. However, outside of Northfield the second district is mostly conservative leaning. Within the district counties like Dakota and Washington slightly favored Clinton while counties like Goodhue, Scott, Rice, and Wabasha, favored Trump, some of them overwhelmingly. Yet, given the potential number of voters at St. Olaf and Carleton—5,000 students altogether— the liberal Northfield could make a big impact in November. The second district seat is currently held by Republican Rep. Jason Lewis, who defeated Craig in 2016 by only 6,655 votes. Factor in the third party candidate Paula Overby, who unexpectedly won 28,869 votes, or about 7% of the vote, and the race was highly competitive.

Because of the importance of college student voices in this election, I spoke with the leaders of the College Republicans and College Democrats at St. Olaf College to better understand how students have been discussing the race. Kathryn Hinderaker, the leader of the College Republicans, told me that although the club itself does not formally endorse Lewis, they have done volunteering, phone-banking and door-knocking as a group for Lewis’ campaign and occasionally talk about him in club. Hinderaker sees Lewis’ worst and also his best quality as his tendency not to be politically correct. She says what she sees as the plus side of this quality is that he is honest and unfiltered and that he follows his own opinions, unafraid to side against people like Trump.

However, on the flipside, she told me that she finds it “hard to justify things he has said.”
In the past, Lewis hosted a radio show, and has been under scrutiny during both of his elections for remarks he made on that show about different groups. One such remark Lewis made that has recently come to the public’s attention is when he discussed the use of the word “slut.” He said “it used to be that women were held to a little bit of a higher standard. We required modesty from women. Now, are we beyond those days where a woman can behave as a slut, but you can’t call her a slut?” Although Hinderaker says she does not support comments like these, she claims “if we all had radio shows, we’d all have said stuff.” Hinderaker points out that “he’s not saying it from office,” which she believes shows he is still qualified.

Tristan Voegeli, the leader of the College Democrats, says that his club “absolutely” endorses Craig “formally, informally, and in every possible way.” They have door-knocks, and many individuals in the club work for her campaign. He sees Craig’s focus on political issues and communication with her constituents as her biggest strengths, in addition to her not having “spent her career spitting offensive and bigoted rhetoric.” As he told me, “she has been spending these two years getting to know the people and problems of this district—unlike her opponent who refuses to hold town halls.” He believes that her biggest weakness as a candidate is refusing to support a single-payer healthcare plan, to which he says she still has “a nuanced and well educated response.”

I spoke with Craig about this at her campaign event, and she told me she instead supports an incremental approach to healthcare. She believes transitioning to single payer healthcare in the two years, as many Democrats are backing, would rush things. The reasoning behind this more moderate position could be due to Craig’s considerations as a Democratic candidate. In some cases a candidate could look more attractive to voters if they espouse more moderate opinions. However this position could also backfire in that more liberal democrats may feel she is not liberal enough. Craig’s decision to support a more incremental approach could also be due to her knowledge of healthcare from her career as head of Global Human Resources at a healthcare manufacturing company in Minnesota and not necessarily tied to her campaign considerations.

At her campaign even Craig discussed her reasons for running again. She mentioned that she did not forsee or factor in the third party vote for Paula Overby in her own campaign. Overby ran in the 2016 race as a candidate in the Independence party. She was formerly a Democrat, but then renounced her party affiliation because she got tired of the two party system and wanted to enact systematic reforms to the political process. Because of Overby’s liberal stance on many issues, her candidacy probably mostly took votes away from Craig. This time around there will be no third party candidate, which could potentially add to Craig’s overall vote share.

Craig says that she also realizes that because of Lewis’ radio host career, working for KTLK­-FM and KSTP-­AM in Minnesota as well as WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina, his name was more recognizable. As she told the Minnesota Post, “what we had was a whole lot of uphill work last cycle to essentially introduce ourselves to voters.” Craig believes that this time, with an awareness of these difficulties and more name recognition, her campaign will succeed in flipping the second district. Other sources have come to similar conclusions.

The Cook Political Report lists District 2 as Democratic leaning, as do New York Times and Real Clear Politics polls, while FiveThirtyEight gives it a 6 in 7 chance of turning blue. However the New York Times margin of error on this pollis close to the even line between Lewis and Craig, showing that a Lewis victory is not unlikely. An additional question related to margin of error with polling is knowing who will actually turn out to vote. Depending on these statistics the outcomes of many polls can change. Some polls are also not a random enough sample of the population to be accurate. The New York Times for example admits that “people who respond to surveys are almost always too old, too white, too educated and too politically engaged to accurately represent everyone.”

Chris Chapp, Associate Professor of Political Science at St. Olaf College, is more hesitant to put much trust in claims that the district is likely to flip. He’s heard people say the district would flip for years, but each time it has remained red. In 2012, for example, the second district just barely voted for Obama over Romney. Even then, the now retired incumbent Republican Rep. John Kline was able to maintain his House seat. When it came to the midterm elections in 2014, the district remained solidly red. Some polls have also been less confident of a Democratic victory. The Cook Political Report lists the district as a toss-up, slightly in favor of Republicans.

Chapp says that although he’s hesitant to say the district will turn blue, some of the angles Lewis’ campaign is taking have caught his attention. Lewis seems to be running in opposition to the Republican party, based on how he portrays himself in some of his ads. In his ad titled “Jason Lewis: Independent Voice for Minnesota,” he says “I’ve stood up to the Republicans on spending, warrantless wiretaps, and criminal justice reform,” a statement clearly indicating that he’s trying to portray himself as less partisan. Generally in non-presidential races people vote based on the national picture, says Chapp, meaning that Lewis would be running as part of Trump’s broader appeal. This distancing, Chapp believes, could indicate that his campaign has access to inside polling that suggests voters may be trying to distance themselves from party politics, or from the Republican party. This distancing of Lewis’ campaign may be indicative of more negative public perceptions of Trump and of Republicans in general, and may show that Lewis could face some backlash for being in the same party.

Despite these angles Lewis is taking, Chapp is still hesitant to say Lewis is the underdog in the race. In the 2018 midterms Chapp says there is not the same energy and public attention that existed in 2016 which could drive down turnout for Democrats. Chapp also points out that there is no national figure for Democrats, while Trump remains the national figure for Republicans, which can often help secure votes or turn people out at the polls.

At a brief interview with Craig after her campaign event, she told me that despite Lewis’ moderate campaigning angle this election, voters should make no mistake—Lewis is not a moderate, and has not shown this tendency in his voting record. She pointed out that Lewis has a 96% voting record with congressional Republicans, and that he has been endorsed by the far-right Freedom Caucus. She says this shows that he is more far right than most Republicans, and that he would continue to follow the same voting record were he to be reelected. Despite numerous attempts via call and email, Lewis’ campaign could not be reached for an interview.

When I asked both students, Voegeli and Hinderaker, whether they thought college students are actively involved and informed on the race, they had very different responses. Hinderaker told me it’s been “on people’s radar,” which she said is “great no matter the side.” Voegeli, however, said students do not care about the race “as much as they should.” He says, “This is one of the closest races in the entire country, and one that every student should be incredibly fired up about.”

Regardless of the level that students pay attention to it, this kind of  race is truly crucial to determining the makeup of the House of Representatives. Democrats could potentially be close to flipping the house, and whether students support a Democratic or Republican House, their vote will matter immensely in the outcome.

Clare Collins is a senior at St. Olaf College studying social work and political science.

The photo above is from Angie Craig’s campaign.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.


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